HOUGHTON, Mich. -- Alaska-Fairbanks' Nichole Bathe and Northern Michigan's Kyle Bratrud captured the Central Region crowns in the women's 5K and men's 10K individual start classic events, respectively, to kick off the regional championships. In near perfect skiing conditions, the Nanooks and Wildcats combined to occupy all six podium spots (three apiece) on the afternoon, meaning that Alaska heads into final day of the NCAA Central Region Championships with a three-point lead on the men's side, while the Northern Michigan women hold an eight-point edge heading into Sunday.
Having missed the CCSA Championships in order to represent the U.S. Ski Team at the World Junior Championships last month, Bathe showed her experience in Italy paid dividends, dominating the field at the Michigan Tech Nordic Training Center. Despite only seeing the course for the first time at 5 p.m. Friday evening, thanks to a cancelled flight and some misplaced equipment, she kept her nerve and sailed to a 15-second victory, completing her 5K in 17:14.4.
"Nichole had a long travel day yesterday, plus she'd never even raced here before, so that would have thrown a lot of people off," Alaska head coach Scott Jerome said. "But she took it in stride, didn't get stressed at all and performed really well."
Though Bathe took the top spot, the other two podium positions went to Northern Michigan, as Rosie Frankowski took second with her time of 17:30.0 and Hannah Boyer staked her claim for an NCAA berth -- an increasingly competitive appointment on the women's side of the region -- with her third-place finish.
St. Scholastica's Sarah Allen continues to find her top form at the right time, impressing with a fourth-place finish on Saturday with her time of 17:56.9. St. Olaf's Paige Schember collected her second consecutive top-five finish as well, placing less than a second behind Allen.
St. Scholastica's second scoring skier, Anita Kirvesniemi, took sixth place, helping the Saints into second on the women's side on the day, after just edging out Northern Michigan's Felicia Gesior by seven-tenths of a second. Alice Flanders (Michigan Tech), Mary Kate Cirelli (NMU) and Ulrika Axelsson rounded out the women's top ten.
On the men's side, Bratrud ended Alaska's Logan Hanneman's two-race winning streak by collecting his third CCSA win of the season. Bratrud, currently the top-ranked men's skier on the CCSA points list and looking a likely shoo-in for an NCAA berth next month, bested Hanneman by just 1.9 seconds in an intriguing battle between two of the region's most in-form skiers.
Though forced to settle for second place, Hanneman would receive some consolation in seeing a pair of teammates finishing directly behind him in the standings. Alaska's Michael Fehrenbach battled through an illness to take the bronze position with his time of 30:02.2, leading early in the race before eventually falling behind the top two. Max Olex then turned in arguably his most impressive race of the season, taking fourth in 30:37.8 in an impressive display of depth from the Nanooks.
"I was so proud of our men's team today," Jerome said. "Max really stepped up today, and even though he wasn't feeling well, Michael fought for the good of the team as well. But it was more than just them - all of our guys (Kenneth Brewer, Isaac Lammers and Jonas Loffler) gave it all they had today."
A trio of Northern Michigan skiers posted the next fastest times, with George Cartwright (5th), Adam Martin (6th) and Fredrik Schwencke (7th) all finishing within 2.3 seconds of one another. St. Scholastica's Paul Schommer took eighth in 30:57.7., while his teammates John Wessling and Chris Parr rounded out the top ten.
The results mean that the Northern Michigan women finish the day with 63 points, eight points ahead of St. Scholastica (55 points) and 12 ahead of Alaska (51). Michigan Tech sits fourth on 45 points.
Things are even tighter on the men's side, with Alaska's 66 points giving them just a three-point cushion above Northern Michigan. St. Scholastica sits third with 51 points.
The CCSA skiers head back to the Nordic Training Center course tomorrow for a vital mass start skate event, with a 15K on tap for the men and a 10K scheduled for the women. Not only will the regional titles be decided, but the two races also represent the final NCAA qualifiers for the region's competitors.
"It's high pressure, but we just try to keep things as normal as possible," Jerome said. "This is what you've been preparing for months and months. But its a lot of fun, regionals is one of my favorites events of the year. It really is a nice capstone to the season."